738 N. Third Street,
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Previous Names: Grand Theatre
Royalty may not have had much to do with the American system of things, but one would not have guessed that from the dozens of theatres across the country bearing names related to royalty. Milwaukee was no different in this respect in that it too had its ‘royalty’ in the forms of theatres named ROYAL, REGAL, PALACE, QUEEN, REGENT, and PRINCESS, and this last name was borne by one theatre there having one of the most complex legal and architectural histories of any movie house in the nation. Indeed, in an article in “Marquee” magazine of 2nd Qtr. 1985, Professor Douglas Gomery of the University of Maryland states in his article: “Situating the Princess Theatre”: “From the day of its opening on December 9, 1909 the PRINCESS represented a very special theatre”.
The special quality of the Princess Theatre was mostly its primacy in the new industry of movie exhibition that was bursting on the scene in the first decade of the 20th Century. By means of a time line, it may be possible to see how a sequence of events that would involve one of the leading brewing families in the country, prominent movie men, and even the President of the United States, would be instrumental in bringing a new form of entertainment to us. Judy Garland may have sung the fiction that she “was born in a trunk in the Princess Theater in Pocatello, Idaho”, but our story begins in downtown Milwaukee at 738 N. 3rd Street in 1897 when the Pabst brewery bought the land upon which the theatre would stand.
September 1903: A developer built a restaurant/saloon there as an outlet for Pabst beer but it failed soon, and it was then converted to the new GRAND Theatre.
Spring of 1904: The GRAND Theatre obtained the new Edison Kinetoscope movie projector a year before the first permanent movies-only house in Milwaukee: the COMIQUE Theatre. Four shows daily of ‘family vaudeville’ was the mainstay of the place, but movies were used as the “chaser” at the end of a show to try to chase out the audience for another show. Thus began the 80-year legacy of movies on this site.
July 1904 finds local architect John Menge increasing the seating from 800 to 900 by adding a balcony and other small improvements. Unfortunately, no photos are know to exist of this date.
June 1906 finds the GRAND Theatres’s land in court in a probate settlement where the granddaughter of the founder of the Pabst brewery is awarded several properties, including the land under the PRINCESS Theatre. Six months later, this woman, Clara Heyl, and her two sons relocate to Berlin, Germany following their mother’s rancorous divorce, but retain ownership of the land. None of them would ever return to Milwaukee.
April 1908 finds the GRAND Theatre less than prosperous under the absentee ownership of the Heyls, so a deal is made with an exhibitor from the west coast, the O.T. Crawford Co. which will produce “talking movies of the human voice” in this day and age of silents. This was done to great success by putting a group of actors and sound effects behind the screen as they called out the lines of dialogue that were shown on the screen. The GRAND Theatre reopened under this new arrangement in May, 1908.
October 1909 finds the GRAND Theatre sublet to burgeoning local exhibitors John and Tom Saxe, who close the theatre for major remodeling, and the Crawford Co. declines to renew its lease. Having been local pioneers in the Dime Museum era, these two had learned what the public wanted and were therefore quick to seize upon the new ‘flickers’ as the movies were then sometimes called, and thought that the GRAND Theatre would be the perfect place for them, if it were a “class” presentation. They therefore hired local architect Henry Lotter to virtually obliterate the GRAND Theatre in a $50,000 remodeling that left only the north wall and the floor of the old theatre. The building was extended 25 feet to the East with a new proscenium, stage, and seating but no stagehouse; this was to be a movies-only theatre. With 1,050 cushioned seats on the main floor and in four boxes in addition to a new balcony, cork padded floors, two electric fountains in the lobby above a mosaic tile floor, and one of the first electric ventilation systems in the city, this was to be a new venue entirely. They even installed a 27-stop, $5,000 pipe organ of unknown make, but this was not the first in a theatre in the city as some have said, since that honor belonged to the PABST Theatre which had a 43-voice Ferrand & Votey electro-pneumatic pipe organ from 1895.
The facade was the real newcomer as far as the citizens were concerned since it took a much larger space on the same frontage on the street by buying the new prefabricated and copyrighted facade design of 1904 by the Decorator’s Supply Co. of Chicago. The design was one of a series for theatres produced by that company in a composition material, and this one was in a variation having dual niches, elaborately framed and illuminated, on either side of the facade at the second floor level. Each niche featured a life-size figure of a puto, seated, one playing a lute and the other a horn. A 40-foot-high central arch was the dominant feature of this Neo-Classical style look of an entablature supported by consoles above the arch and a high, ornamented parapet above that, but it all was really an excuse to adorn every moulding with strings of light bulb sockets to accommodate the stud lighting then so popular – in this case with 1,500 bulbs!
December 1909 was the grand opening of the newly renamed PRINCESS Theatre, and invitations were sent out to the better class of people for them to come and experience better movies in the atmosphere that the Saxe’s decided was to be the wave of the future. In addition to a classier public audience, there were city officials in attendance, and mayor David Rose gave the dedicatory address, an honor not every business received. The feature films, the organ, illustrated song slides, a five piece house orchestra, and the mirrored and draped interior were complemented by hundreds of flowers and palms spread about to adorn the new show house. The newspaper accounts were glowing, and with assured profits from the PRINCESS Theatre, the Saxe brothers were well on their way to acquiring several local theatres and beginning their chain. Foremost among these at the time was the MODJESKA Theatre on the south side (also profiled here) where successful architect Henry Lotter also enjoyed great economies of cost by using the very same prefabricated facade, but with different cast composition letters for the name on the facade, of course. Both theatres featured ‘skeleton’ vertical signs with their names and the figure ‘5 cent’ in a circle above that, all done out in light bulbs, even though the price of admission was often more than five cents. Both theatres also later added simple box canopies with double line attraction boards having changeable letters of light bulbs. An island box office at the sidewalk line was centered under the high arch and the alcove behind the box office featured painted posters of the attractions as well as hundreds of light bulbs surrounding the trio of stained glass windows above the posters.
It is 1914 and World War I breaks out and one of the sons of Clara Heyl, Helmuth, takes over principal ownership from his home in Berlin. The USA passes acts of Congress prohibiting Americans from doing business with the enemy and this law, which was aimed at the large German-American population in the country, would cause the next major change in the fortunes of the PRINCESS Theatre.
April 1921: The war is over, but the teutophobic sentiments of the country remain, and the Alien Property Custodian, acting on behalf of the federal government, seized the Heyl real estate in Milwaukee. Because the Heyls did not hold a license from the President for their properties, they were deemed to be enemies of the United States. Their lands were taken from them under the 1917 Act of Congress known as the “Trading With The Enemy Act”. The Heyls protested and a lengthy court battle ensued. (*)
April 1924: President Calvin Coolidge issued an Executive Order requiring public sale of the Heyl real estate. Helmuth Heyl then moved back to the States and became a US citizen and began a court battle to overturn this Order. In April of 1927, Mr. Heyl was granted the return of only one of the properties, the PRINCESS Theatre. He resided in upstate New York.
In 1924 it is discovered by the new owner of the land immediately to the south of the theatre, that the PRINCESS Theatre lot was mis-surveyed and so an amicable agreement was reached such that the theatre was closed for remodeling, which included the razing of the old south wall and then the slight reduction in the width of the PRINCESS Theatre. This resulted in removing the roof and installing new steel columns against the inside of the new south wall of the auditorium in order to support the steel trusses above. While these new columns were properly boxed in with plaster, and the ornamental fabric covered panels replaced on the new wall, it was for some reason thought not necessary to replace the roofing and this resulted in the steel trusses of 1909 being exposed above the new suspended flat roof beneath them. It produced an odd sight from the alley at the rear, but it was not visible from the front due to the new four-story false front then erected. Since they were going to this much expense anyway, and the composition material of the 1909 facade was no doubt beginning to flake away as such is prone, another renovation was undertaken of the facade resulting in a distinctive terra cotta design that would never flake away.
June 1925: The artistry of an architect whose name is not recorded, is unveiled to the public as the new terra cotta false front displays a cream and buff composition accented with leaf green moldings of classical urns, scrolls, and husk flowers rising from the string course at the second floor line, to the cornice just under the mock parapet. The center panel of the facade between these two side panels, is fronted by three, two-story-high arched ‘windows’ with ornamental mullions and muntins in buff terra cotta. What was distinctive about these ‘windows’ is that they were never that; they were actually matte-glazed terra cotta done in a gray-black in the seemingly glass areas between the muntins that fooled many a passerby. The reason for this unique design was that the remodeling did not change the essence of the 1909 layout: the theatre was still a single story structure, but its balcony and boxes were removed at this time along with a refurbishment of the interior decor. This resulted in the odd situation that when one took the tortuous climb to the level of the projection room, he was able to turn around and look out through a small hallway window upon the ornamented ceiling of the former alcove inside the original 40-foot-high arch of 1909, the front of which was sealed shut by this new false front. It was like being in two worlds at the same time. This 1925 new decor was really only a freshening of the original box beams and pilasters of the 1909 style, with new fabric wall panels, and new stage drapery (a very modest design), and with the splays of the proscenium done up as organ chambers for the small pipe organ with white mesh screens made up to resemble oriental paper screens! Above these hung mesh draperies centered with one large, padded satin pendant on each. Not a lot of money was spent on this remodeling as was evidenced by the simple bowl up-lights as well as the little brass electric fans on the face of each pilaster. The Saxes did not spend more than they had to, so although the front looked brand new, they were not about to spend for the air cooling that the new movie palaces had, but then there was no real basement under the PRINCESS Theatre large enough to contain more than a small boiler anyway. The Saxes were building newer and much larger movie palaces, and were not about to spend anything more on the old PRINCESS Theatre than was absolutely necessary.
In 1927 the Saxe Amusement Enterprises' chain of theatres was sold to West Coast Theatres, which in turn was bought by Fox Film Corporation which went bankrupt by 1933, and the PRINCESS Theatre ironically was then purchased by the Saxes once again, along with other theatres at a bargain rate, in the form of Tower Realty (as in TOWER THEATRE, also profiled here).
By 1943 the PRINCESS Theatre was long past its days of glamour, showing movies as 8th run, mostly ‘B’ westerns and cheap action films. By this time it was owned by National Theatres in New York. They only charged half of what the first run theatres just blocks away charged, so it was no longer the belle of ‘theatre row’ that it had once been. National did invest in a new fluorescent lamps marquee, but it was too little too late.
In 1957 the street level facade was clad in a false (plastic) ‘brick’ to ‘modernize’ by covering the original entry and the poster cases with new ones. The box office was covered and a new ticket sales counter sprouted in what passed for a new, smaller lobby where refreshments were the real decor. In 1959 a local realty company purchased the theatre as part of larger real estate deal, and promptly leased it to Prudential Theatres who caused the PRINCESS Theatre to begin showing ‘adult’ films as of January 15, 1960. A larger screen was installed which obliterated the organ chambers, but then the organ had disappeared long ago, as had the fountains, draperies and decorative mirrors. Television was all the rage at that time, and the PRINCESS Theatre joined others in town in doing what it had to, to survive against the dwindling patronage of movies. One of the first ‘sex bombs,’ Brigette Bardot, had her films seen there at the time. It was in this era that a secret door was built on the north wall of the lobby to connect the adjoining Brass Rail nightclub by which those wanting to retain a clean reputation would enter the now declasse PRINCESS Theatre to see scandalous films without anyone on the street being the wiser.
The 1970’s brought new sexually explicit films to theatres and the neighborhood decayed as downtown movie houses closed right and left. Helmuth Heyl died in New York, and the theatre passed to his heirs who sought greater profits by leasing the theatre to Las Vegas Enterprises and other firms distributing smut films. The price of admission rose to $5, but as videos came upon the scene, even that films market disappeared. One might think the PRINCESS Thetare would be abandoned at this point as so many others had been, but it was a kinder death in a way when the city moved to condemn the property at the secret behest of the developers then building the new federal office building across the street. It was termed urban renewal when the city demolished the theatre as well as the Brass Rail nightclub and another building, though some preservationists were talking about the historic nature of the PRINCESS Theatre, not withstanding its dubious social value at the time.
It was noon of August 31, 1984 and this writer, along with the author of “Milwaukee Movie Palaces”, Larry Widen, happened to be standing on the sidewalk in front of the PRINCESS Theatre when suddenly a flatbed truck rolls up from the alley with a bulldozer on it, and proceeds to punch a 12-foot-diameter hole in the wall of the theatre. The man operating the bulldozer explained to us that he was ordered to do it in order to make moot the proposed designation of the old building a city landmark. Several days later, when a court ruled that the city’s condemnation and seizure was legal, the city demolition crews moved in to end the XXX-class of fare and the land was leveled to become – what else? – a parking lot, which it remains to this day. The tar line of the roofline of the PRINCESS Theatre is still to be seen on the north wall of the 1920’s building to the south, the very one which caused the demolition of the theatre’s south wall. The north wall and the foundation of the building were the only parts of the structure that had been a restaurant, later the GRAND Theatre, and for the last 75 years, the PRINCESS Theatre, billed on opening night as “The Coziest Little Theatre in the West”.
By James H. (Jim) Rankin, , February, 2004
- Quotations are from Larry Widen’s article “Milwaukee’s Princess Theater” in MARQUEE magazine of the Theatre Historical Soc. of America, Second Qtr., 1985.
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